Local members of Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation are vowing to push back against a Department of Veterans Affairs plan that includes recommendations for the closure of the VA medical centers in Philadelphia and Coatesville.
The two hospitals would be among 35 closures or overhauls nationwide based on VA Secretary Denis McDonough’s restructuring recommendation to the Asset and Infrastructure Review Commission, released this week. Both facilities are said to “not meet current design standards,” and would cost about $120 million each to modernize, the report says.
The report calls for the two hospitals to be replaced by a new facility in King of Prussia, a new outpatient clinic in Coatesville, and a new residential treatment site in the Philadelphia area.
The commission will review the recommendations and make changes as needed. Its conclusions will end up on President Joe Biden’s desk at some point in 2023 — with any action likely coming at least several years after that.
The nationwide reassessment was the product of the VA Mission Act approved by Congress in 2018, which called for a review of all facilities.
Members of the state’s congressional delegation appeared to be blindsided by the report’s recommendations but said they would fight any plan to shutter the hospitals.
“I intend to use every tool in the toolbox to keep Philadelphia’s VA Medical Center open and serving our veterans,” U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans said in a statement. “I and my staff are still reviewing the plan, but the bottom line is — I am committed to ensuring our Philadelphia veterans and their families are well served.”
In an interview with WHYY News Thursday, Evans doubled down on his opposition to any proposed closure or cutback. He said the medical center has provided service for years, and that it shouldn’t be messed with.
“I do not take it lightly, and the veterans don’t take it lightly. I want to be very clear — this is not acceptable and I’m opposed to it,” Evans said.
Evans’ district includes University City, where the Philadelphia VA medical center is located. Built in 1950, the medical center employs more than 2,800 people full time and offers surgical, inpatient, and outpatient services, as well as mental health care and rehabilitative medicine.
The VA’s recommendation to the Asset and Infrastructure Review Commission calls for the Philadelphia medical center to develop a “strategic collaboration” with its neighbor, the University of Pennsylvania — or face closure. According to the report, needs would be realigned with the construction of a new outpatient facility in Camden or King of Prussia.
In a statement to WHYY News, a Penn Medicine spokesperson noted the “longstanding relationship” with the Philadelphia VA facility — one that the university has had since 1948.
“We are incredibly proud of this partnership and are reviewing the recommendations in the VA report released this week to determine how we can best support the VA and CMCVAMC [Cpl. Michael J. Crescenz Veterans Affairs Medical Center] to ensure continued access to the highest quality health care for veterans in our region,” the statement read.
U.S. Sen. Bob Casey told WHYY News in a statement that there is a “moral obligation” to take care of veterans now.
“We owe it to veterans in Southeastern Pennsylvania to provide quality, reliable care close to home, and I am committed to working with the Biden administration to make that happen,” the statement read.
His spokesperson Natalie Adams said that Casey will be reviewing the VA report this week to determine the next course of action.
U.S. Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, who represents Chester County, expressed on Twitter her disappointment with the Biden administration for suggesting closure of the VA medical center in Coatesville, which offers inpatient mental health and outpatient services and employs roughly 1,200 full-time workers.
In 2021 alone, the Coatesville VA Medical Center had more than 200,000 outpatient visits.
Houlahan also said in her statement on Twitter that she is “inclined to fight” the new proposal. She expressed concern about the current state of health care in Chester County.
“I’m especially concerned because of recent hospital closings in southern Chester County and, as I understand it, Coatesville has the only VA-funded residential rehab for veterans with substance use issues,” Houlahan said.
Mike Hamill, public affairs specialist at the Coatesville VA Medical Center, stressed that the report contains recommendations, so there will be no immediate changes to the services at the center. He also pointed out that the report opens by saying that if any facilities actually close, there will be replacement services for the people who are affected.
What actually happens with the VA medical centers will probably be quite different from this initial proposal, said Joe Brooks, executive director of the Veterans Multi-Service Center, a nonprofit that serves veterans in Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Jersey.
“There’s going to be many twists and turns,” he said. “I see this as a process unfolding over the next five to 10 years.”
Brooks said his team got a macro-level briefing about the proposal a week ago. He compared the deliberations to the Defense Department’s process for closing or shrinking military bases. He pointed out that Defense had recommended closing Fort Dix in New Jersey decades ago, but that it ultimately did not happen.
The VA’s infrastructure proposal uses drive time as one metric to measure how easily veterans in a particular region can get to services — and Brooks said that’s one area he would like the deliberations to address with more nuance. He said many veterans rely on public transport, or are experiencing homelessness, or rely on nonprofits like his to get to VA appointments. On average, Brooks said, his staff makes 100 van trips from Philadelphia to VA facilities every month.
“Not every veteran is residing comfortably in a stable household,” Brooks said. “It’s very important that the deliberative process takes into account not just those veterans that are hopping in their own car, or can rely on a son and daughter to take them to a VA center.”
One goal of the VA’s plan is to provide more modern facilities. Alain Foster is a 64-year-old Navy veteran who goes to the Coatesville VA Medical Center for various appointments. He said there have been refurbishments and new construction at the historic 129-acre facility over the years, which is why he finds it hard to believe the VA would actually close it.
“It’s a beautiful facility … it looks like a college campus if you were to come out to see it.”
Foster added that he has nothing but praise for the people at the Coatesville VA facility and is concerned about the proposal to close it, especially after Brandywine Hospital in Coatesville shut down earlier this year.
“If somebody would have told me a couple of years ago that they were going to close down Brandywine, I would have told you that’s ludicrous,” he said
Brandywine Hospital was minutes down the road from the VA medical center and would often treat veterans who needed acute care. It was also the only inpatient behavioral health facility in Chester County.
Mere discussion of the Coatesville VA Medical Center’s possible closure adds insult to injury in Chester County. Tower Health’s Jennersville Hospital in West Grove closed in December, and Brandywine Hospital in Coatesville closed in January. A buyer has yet to be found for either hospital.
In an interview, Houlahan said that she had a conversation with VA Secretary McDonough on Wednesday in which she detailed her concerns as a veteran, as the daughter of the veteran, and as a neighbor of those who could lose their jobs.
She said she also contextualized the situation for McDonough by explaining the recent loss of two hospitals.
“I explained to him that perhaps he didn’t have quite the local background that he should have had in making this sort of choice … Obviously, this is not a done deal. And this is well, well into the future, but this is also health care-related and something that we rely on. And so that was part of the conversation that I had with him … that there needed to be possibly more local appreciation of what was happening on the ground in our community,” Houlahan said.
But the VA facilities in Philadelphia and Coatesville could do with some change, said Steve Phillabaum, a 40-year-old Navy veteran in Phoenixville. He used to go to a VA clinic in Spring City that closed and relocated just outside Norristown late last year. He said that’s been an improvement, and that whenever he goes to the facilities in Philadelphia and Coatesville, he sometimes thinks about how much it would cost to update those sites to be up to speed with facilities like the new one in West Norriton.
“As long as good communication happens between the Veterans Administration, the hospital system, and the patients and the consumers like me, I don’t see a problem,” Phillabaum said.
The VA could work on explaining its proposal and services better, he said, so people understand that the plan is not just about closing hospitals to save money.
“There’s an inherent concern: Will the care be provided for the veterans in need? I think the VA has the solution for all that.”